01/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Indefinable Barack Obama

Barack Obama's appointment of Rep. Hilda Solis as Secretary of Labor put an end to the preliminary process of crafting his economic team. It has been, by most assessments, a wild success. But there has been a little heartburn, as some in the progressive movement have been at pains to hold their tongues over the lack of a like-minded voice in the Cabinet.

Solis' appointment relieved some of that pressure. Revered for her work on union issues -- she has walked in picket lines, serves on the board of directors of American Rights at Work, and had a 100% voting record from the AFL-CIO last year -- the California Democrat is a firmly progressive figure.

"It is enormously important that a labor secretary be a person for whom this is not a job but a passion," said Andy Stern, head of the powerful SEIU. "And I think Hilda Solis' passion for people that work and particular for low wage workers is tremendously important. Whether it was supporting our janitors campaign, or homecare campaign, or being a big leader of the minimum wage campaign in California, I would bet there is no labor secretary in history that has as much [frontline] experience as Hilda Solis."

Because of this background, as well as Solis' other attributes (for example, her working relationship with incoming chief of staff Rahm Emanuel) people are chatting optimistically about the future of labor in the Obama White House. Already Solis' appointment is being interpreted as a reaffirmation of the president-elect's commitment to green jobs and the Employee Free Choice Act. But not everyone is ready to drop their skeptical guard.

"The unions are obviously happy about the appointment," said John Aravosis, editor of AmericaBlog. "But let's keep something in mind. It was one of the last appointments he made to the cabinet and it was one of the least important. I'm worried that the Chicken Littles will end up being right. People who complained that the cabinet is looking a little too conservative, that Obama was afraid of liberals, that he doesn't want to deal with netroots, may have a point."

Indeed, the Solis appointment, as much as it was a boon for labor loyalists, is also emblematic of a transition process that -- perhaps by design -- has had no real ideological definition. In the process of staffing his White House and prepping his presidency, Obama has managed to irritate both sides of the political aisle. A day before progressives gleefully consumed the Solis news, they were lamenting the choice of Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at the inauguration.

Conservatives, meanwhile, are airing complaints about the nomination of Eric Holder as Attorney General, even as many Republicans say that Obama's national security team is so mainstream and shrewd, John McCain could have put it together.

The situation is, in some ways, a testament to Obama's kind of politics: the clearest sign to date that he is not beholden to any particular dogma, that he values pragmatism over rigidity. But his style seems destined to cause a fair share of pain among his supporters. Both Stern and Aravosis, for example, said the Solis choice did not mitigate progressive complaints over Warren.

"It is a legitimate issue that at a very symbolic moment a person who has a view about equality in marriage that does not match up to a big Democratic constituency will be speaking," said Stern. "We should not say that symbolism doesn't matter."

In the end, as an astute reader points out, Obama's leadership style was telegraphed months, years, even decades before his election. Those who worked under him at the Harvard Law Review described the same competitive, practical, but ultimately indefinable atmosphere seen during the transition.

"I think Barack took 10 times as much grief from those on the left on the Review as from those of us on the right," Bradford Berenson, a conservative classmate and former associate White House counsel to President George W. Bush, told PBS. "And the reason was, I think there was an expectation among those editors on the left that he would affirmatively use the modest powers of his position to advance the cause, whatever that was. They thought, you know, finally there's an African-American president of the Harvard Law Review; it's our turn, and he should aggressively use this position, and his authority and his bully pulpit to advance the political or philosophical causes that we all believe in. And Barack was reluctant to do that. It's not that he was out of sympathy with their views, but his first and foremost goal, it always seemed to me, was to put out a first-rate publication. And he was not going to let politics or ideology get in the way of doing that."